Back in 1985, the lighthearted trappings of women's rugby were much in evidence at the national championship. The Minnesota club arrived sporting punk hairdos and T-shirts reading MINNESOTA—MORE THAN A HAIRCUT. The New Orleans contingent showed up at drinkups, as postgame intermingling rites are called, in getups that looked like debris from an exploding thrift shop. The loose crew from Florida State University psyched itself up by chanting primitive battle cries taught to them by New Zealand rugby players.
But, as a North American Monkees chant goes, "That was then, this is now." The eight clubs competing last month at the ninth USA Rugby Football Union Women's National Club Championship in San Diego brought a sober, solemn, almost dour approach to the game. The Minnesotans swore we had seen the last of their shocking shocks, the New Orleaners dressed more or less for success, and you couldn't find an FSU player who knew a primitive battle cry. "We want to be taken seriously," said Candi Orsini, FSU's player-coach. "Our emphasis used to be on the social aspect. Now we're concentrating on the beauty of the sport."
From an aesthetic standpoint, the fluid chaos of the final, between FSU and Boston's Beantown squad, could have been mistaken for a postmodern dance choreographed by Twyla Tharp. The action unfolded on Robb Field, a gopher-infested pitch where the little buggers below nearly outnumbered the muscular ruggers above. Four-time winner FSU, which lost last year's championship match to Beantown in overtime, scored first, but trailed for much of the game. With less than a minute to go in injury time, FSU fullback Victoria Bowlin dashed for the try line. She got high-tackled just before reaching the pink foam-rubber-padded goalpost, and placekicker-fly half Jan Auger shanked the penalty kick. Beantown held on to win 6-4.
Women's rugby requires not only artistry but sacrifice as well. The players pretty much pay their own way, even at FSU, where the club receives nominal travel expenses. Some teams hold raffles, others rallies or bake sales. The Eugene, Ore., club, which calls itself the Housewives, sold sweatshirts and aprons that displayed a '20s flapper drop-kicking a rugby ball beneath the Words I DON'T WANT TO BE A HOUSEWIFE. Actually, only one of the 19 Housewives at the tournament was even married. "The reason most women ruggers don't raise families," said Housewife Amy Sierzega, "is that we don't have the money to do both."
The ruggers were an eclectic collection of bartenders and biochemists, private eyes and painters, lawyers and lumberjacks. If you believed the official program, the Chicago squad could have staffed St. Elsewhere. The team's roster included a neurosurgeon, a dermatologist, a hematologist, an anesthesiologist, a pediatrician, a gynecologist, a proctologist and a malpractice attorney. "Actually, none of us are doctors or lawyers," revealed wing forward-pediatrician Tracey Button. "It was all a joke. A lot of people think we're just out there to kill each other."
Women ruggers are sensitive about their image. They already have a modest reputation as bruisers—you can hardly prance around looking like Billy Idol and expect to get a rep for daintiness. "Male ruggers have to fight the image of hooliganism," said Orsini. "We have to contend with that as well as with the idea that we're more masculine than other women. It's frustrating."
The 30-year-old Orsini, a seven-time All-Star at outside center, is the only rugger ever to have been nominated to the Women's Sports Hall of Fame. She's a tooth-rattling tackier, a deft lateraler and a breakaway runner who can feint a pack of onrushing opponents the way Gene Kelly can sidestep a puddle. Orsini supports her rugby habit by working as a movie stuntwoman. She took a 40-foot fall from a riverboat in Porky's Revenge, was brained with a baseball bat in Band of the Hand and crashed through a window in a gorilla suit in Whoops Apocalypse.
Women usually play with less abandon and greater regard for the rules than do men, who tend to be individualistic performers rather than team players. "Men just put their heads down and charge," said Beantown coach Kevin O'Brien. "Women use more technique, style and intellect." Females also seem to be more coachable than their male counterparts, perhaps because they don't have to unlearn nasty football habits like blocking and forward passing.
Female ruggers often view football as some sort of bastardization of their newly adopted pastime. "In football, everything is marked off," said Leslie Jamison, the tournament's chief of officials. "In rugby, you don't have to measure yardage to show how good you are. American men learn to play rugby the way they learn to play football, which is backward because rugby was first." In fact, said Jamison, life imitates rugby.
"Either you tackle people in life," she said, "or they get by you."